On a lazy, otherwise-uneventful Tuesday in August, five words from Luther Burden on Twitter sent Missouri football discourse into a frenzy.
“(R)espect my decision … business move,” the five-star East St. Louis High School receiver tweeted. A graphic accompanied the all-lowercase sentence, stating his decommitment from Oklahoma.
The public reaction from the Missouri program was swift. Freshman defensive end Arden Walker expressed his desire on social media for Burden to join him in Columbia. Receiver Mookie Cooper, who is also from the St. Louis area, tweeted “Lil Luther” with two pair of eyes emoji.
Coach Eliah Drinkwitz tweeted a picture of his new car — with a very particular phrasing.
“Thank you to Mercedes-Benz of Columbia for the five-star ride!” the tweet read.
In the two months since, Burden has begun his senior year and set a commitment date of this upcoming Tuesday. In September, he announced that he had narrowed his decision to three schools: Alabama, Georgia and Missouri.
The Tigers can’t compete with the reputation or prestige of the other two schools, but in just the past few years Missouri has had reasonable success recruiting Burden’s specific type: St. Louis-area receivers. There are four players on the Tigers’ roster who fit those specifications. Dominic Lovett and Ja’Mori Maclin both committed out of high school. Cooper took a longer route. Here’s how they ended up in Columbia.
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From the time Jarius “Ja’Mori” “Jay” Maclin was a freshman on junior varsity at Kirkwood High School, coach Farrell Shelton had high expectations for him. As unfair as it may have been to Maclin, the obvious inclination was to compare him to his cousin Jeremy, a former Kirkwood and MU standout who played eight seasons in the NFL.
“I’m sure Jeremy was an outstanding player, and I’m sure a lot of people would say, ‘Yes, he may have been better,’” said Shelton, who now coaches at Corning High School in Arkansas. “In my eyes, I can say right now, I don’t know if I had ever seen someone better than Jay.”
Skill level aside, it was clear early on that Maclin had a more extensive football background than a typical high schooler ... and the knowledge that came with it. He studied film with an uncommon commitment to detail and applied it to games, reporting back to Shelton as the coach devised the game plan. If Shelton called a play during a game and Maclin thought he should run a different route based on what he had seen, he would say so, and Shelton was usually receptive.
His senior year, playing against eventual state champion Joplin, Maclin caught three touchdowns. Shelton cites Maclin’s adjustments — things like running 8 yards when the original play called for 10 or a slant instead of a post — as the reason.
At the beginning of that year, Jeremy joined the Kirkwood coaching staff — he’s now the head coach — and was able to work with Jay on a daily basis. He was harder on his cousin than any of the other receivers, but there was a reason for it. Maclin had loftier goals than most other high school players. If he wanted to play in the SEC, he would have to hold himself to a higher standard.
Jeremy regularly gave Jay rides to and from practice. Sometimes Jay spent the night at his cousin’s house.
“What (Jay) doesn’t understand is Jeremy is so proud of (him) no matter what he does,” Shelton said. “He does not have to score five touchdowns for Jeremy to be proud of him. Jay was just such a competitor.”
Colleges had been reaching out since before Maclin’s junior year. Kansas, Kansas State and Arizona State were all particularly interested. So was Missouri. Becoming a Tiger would give him proximity to his family and allow him to follow in the footsteps of one of the people he admired most. He committed the April of his junior year.
“St. Louis is (an) hour and a half away; my family can come there any time,” Maclin said last March. “I just want to be able to do things for Mizzou, my family and just carry on that last name.”
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Right now, Danita Gibson is happy because her son Mookie Cooper is happy.
Cooper is living out some of his high school goals at Missouri — play football in college, get an education for free — and he’s doing it less than two hours away from home.
Cooper, and by extension Gibson, weren’t always this content. After Cooper transferred from Trinity Catholic High School to Pattonville before his senior year, the Missouri State High School Activities Association declared him ineligible. He committed to Texas then flipped to Ohio State, where he didn’t register any stats, taking a redshirt in his freshman season.
Gibson never misses a game, and even as Cooper left the sideline in only one game his freshman year, she still drove the six hours to Columbus, Ohio, most weekends. She occasionally flew if the Buckeyes were on the road.
When Cooper decided to transfer at the end of the year, Gibson had little advice. It was Cooper’s career, his decision. She just wanted him to be happy.
“It’s not me that’s going through the process,” she said. “I’m just supportive as possible with whatever decision he decides to make. He was 18 years old at the time, so basically he was an adult.”
Cooper had a few criteria as he looked for a landing spot. He wanted to be in the SEC. He wanted an offense that suited his skill set. Being close to home would be nice, too. Missouri checked all of those boxes. He committed Jan. 5 and was on campus for spring practice shortly after.
Cooper estimated after Missouri’s opener against Central Michigan that more than 20 friends and family members had been at the game. That included his grandmother, who hadn’t been able to make it to many games at Ohio State. She now attends every week the Tigers are at home to watch Cooper, her first grandchild to attend college.
“It’s a big deal for the both of us because he always said he just wanted to make a change, make a difference,” Gibson said.
Football was the natural vehicle for Cooper to make that difference within his family, because competing is all he’s ever wanted to do. He also played basketball growing up, even playing pickup ball at the same community center as Maclin, but his 5-foot-8 stature made a future in hoops difficult.
“It’s about making a difference, it’s about him getting to college, but this is all he knows,” Gibson said. “This is something that he actually enjoys doing.”
And that Cooper enjoys what he’s doing is all that’s ever mattered to Gibson.
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Freshmen rarely play on varsity under Cameron Pettus. The football coach currently works for East Jackson High School in Commerce, Georgia, but was previously at Belleville West, where he coached Dominic Lovett.
Lovett was more than just an exception to Pettus’ norm. All it took was Pettus seeing him run to know Lovett was a potential asset on varsity.
Then five games into his high school career, Lovett emerged as the Maroons’ go-to receiver. On a Friday night in September at home against Alton, Belleville West was struggling offensively. After a scoreless first quarter, Pettus gave his offensive coordinator a simple direction.
“Throw it to the freaking guy.”
That became the objective not just for the rest of the game but throughout the season. If the offense was in trouble, just get Lovett out into single coverage and work from there.
“I take the top off the defense,” Lovett, now a freshman at Missouri, said in September. “I’m a kind of speedster guy. I got a little bit of every attribute you can think of: speed, got hands, can jump. So when I go out there, I just play my role.”
That role only expanded into his next season of high school. As a sophomore in 2018, Lovett set school records for receiving yards and touchdowns.
“He was a competitor, too, always a competitor,” Pettus said. “Loved to always compete. Always going against the best. Wanted the best. Wanted to be the best, and you just gotta love that about a player.”
Pettus left for Georgia at the end of the season, and Lovett transferred to East St. Louis High School for his junior and senior years and teamed up with current Missouri backup quarterback Tyler Macon. As a junior, he caught 73 passes for 1,541 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Originally committed to Arizona State, Lovett flipped in December of his senior year, again joining Macon at Missouri.
In interviews since, Lovett has declined to say specifically why he decommitted from ASU but has cited his relationship with Drinkwitz.
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Burden was at Missouri’s homecoming win over North Texas last week. This week, he announced via Twitter that he’ll be at Georgia for the Bulldogs’ game against Kentucky.
A five-star recruit committing to Missouri would be almost unprecedented, but if there’s a recruiting strength for the Tigers in the first two years of the Drinkwitz era, it’s St. Louis-area receivers. Maclin, Cooper and Lovett were all coveted by more than a few programs, and those that have spoken publicly have all had similar reasons for choosing Missouri: proximity to home and a good relationship with the coaching staff.
Whatever other factors may have played a role, they were enough for the current trio of contributors. Now Missouri is just days away from finding out if they’re enough for Burden.